Summary and Analysis
Julien finds himself in love with the beauty and charm of Mathilde, and even his previous black vision of her as a Catherine de Medici forms part of the ideal she is becoming for him. Convinced, however, that he will be made a dupe, Julien pretexts a business trip to Mole's estates in the Languedoc. This threat of departure moves Mathilde to action, and in the declaration of love that she writes him, she states that it would be beyond her strength to be separated from him.
Julien is overjoyed at this avowal and convinces Mole that the latter's affairs in Normandy now require a change in plans and Julien's presence in Paris. Mole's joy at Julien's plans causes a conflict to rise for Julien. How can he seduce the daughter of a man who has been so kind and who is so attached to him? He silences this scruple and, still driven by his mistrust of these aristocrats, devises a plan whereby, if need be, there will exist proof of Mathilde's attempt to seduce him. He copies the letter and sends it in a Bible to his friend Fouqué for safekeeping. Then he composes a truly diplomatic letter as an answer to Mathilde, an answer that does not compromise him.
Mathilde writes Julien a second letter, impatiently demanding an answer. Julien complies but admits nothing and announces his imminent departure from Paris. In order to deliver it to her, he strolls in the garden, and there he catches her eye as she watches him from her room. The next exchange contains her queenly command that Julien is to come to her room by means of a ladder at one o'clock.
The evening before the rendezvous finds Julien still debating over Mathilde's intentions. Prepared for the worst, Julien imagines the various means at the disposal of the conspirators to capture, murder, and disgrace him. He sends more copies of Mathilde's letters to Fouqué, together with a sealed denunciation to be circulated to various newspapers in the event of a catastrophe. Julien tries, in vain, to read betrayal on the face of the servants and of Mathilde during dinner. He strolls in the garden, wishing that she would appear to reassure him. He then reproaches himself for having stooped to ingratitude that would compromise the honor of such a noble family. He regrets having mailed the letters to Fouqué.
At the appointed hour, Julien climbs the ladder to Mathilde's window. Their first moments of conversation are forced, and both are very ill at ease. Julien stealthily inspects the premises, searching for concealed enemies. Finally he confesses his suspicions to Mathilde. They search desperately for subjects of conversation. Julien's evident assurance as he projects future meetings causes Mathilde to realize with horror that she has given herself a master. After much hesitation, Mathilde decides that she owes it to Julien, who has displayed much courage by appearing, to give herself to him. Neither finds pleasure, however, in the act of love. Julien departs before dawn, riding to the heights of Meudon, where at last he finds happiness. Mathilde asks herself whether she loves Julien after all.
These chapters relate the development, manifestations, and expressions of the duel of love that is waged between Julien and Mathilde. Chapter 16 culminates in the first rendezvous in her room, representing a definitive victory for Julien. Although Julien has certainly been formed by the action since his days in Verrières, his success with Mathilde depends on his own blundering, which is reminiscent of his affair with Mme. de Rênal. It is his distrust, his suspicion that he will be made a dupe, that prevent him from accepting Mathilde's overt advances. This coldness, on the other hand, is exactly what encourages Mathilde, and her fear of losing Julien prompts her to make the first written avowal. In spite of Stendhal's ironic treatment of the lovers' dilemma, Julien remains the fictitious Stendhal who coolly puts into operation what Stendhal himself had learned about the mechanism of love, as expressed in De L'Amour.
As it has been shown, Julien is vaguely aware of the uniqueness of the psychology of this haughty Mathilde, but he is unable yet to exploit his knowledge efficaciously. The element of gratuitous victory is also present in his evaluation of her character. He sees her as Machiavellian, exaggerating her duplicity. She is, in fact, complex and strange, but not in that way. He is, therefore, right and wrong simultaneously. Stendhal gives to Julien an awareness of his own crystallization process. Julien attributes to Mathilde all qualities; he imagines her to be Catherine de Medici: "Nothing was too profound or too criminal for the character he ascribed to her." Julien, like Mathilde, seems to be in love with an ideal. Mathilde is undergoing the same torment, fearing that Julien feels nothing for her. The theme of self-delusion, manifest here in the area of love, is one of the dominant Stendhalian themes and constitutes part of his uniqueness as a psychological novelist.
The rationalization that Julien makes of the affront of which he is guilty toward M. de la Mole is a very convincing demonstration of the title of the novel. Julien vindictively shouts his battle cry: It's every man for himself in this desert of selfishness known as life. Why should providence have given him such a noble soul and not the material success that should accompany it? He has been denied the brilliant uniform that Croisenois wears, but he has known how to choose the uniform of his time — the priest's cassock that could ultimately become a cardinal's robe. Julien sees the necessity of a strategic campaign, cloaked in duplicity, as the only means to success. He begins the attack by composing his diplomatic letter to Mathilde.
Chapter 14 illustrates again Stendhal's concentric-circle technique of narration. He now returns to a description of the circumstances surrounding the delivery of the first letter to Julien, this time from Mathilde's point of view. Like Julien, Mathilde has undergone a conflict as her love has progressed. She has feared that she is not loved, and the new fear is born, to become stronger later, that she has given herself a master. Stendhal then shifts to Julien's point of view, proceeding to the second and third letters from Mathilde. Still undecided as to the reality that confronts him, Julien plans for both eventualities: either Mathilde's love for him, regulated by her pride, or the comedy in which his adversaries would make him the dupe. He realizes that he made a mistake by not leaving as he had threatened; therefore, his answer to Mathilde's second letter announces, in effect, that this time he will leave. The result in this comedy of errors is that Mathilde gives him a rendezvous. Without really being conscious of it, Julien has successfully used, on two occasions, a threat of departure to bring about the seduction of Mathilde. He is re-enacting his experience with Mme. de Rênal.
In the interior monologue preceding the rendezvous, Julien sees himself as most assuredly a victim of his imagined conspirators. The scene is perhaps the most exemplary in the novel of the almost paranoiac state into which the hero is capable of working himself. It is hardly a question of withdrawing at this point. Things have progressed too far, and honor forbids him from shirking his duty. A bust of Richelieu silently reproaches him and rids him early of any doubt but that the rendezvous will take place. What he debates is how to rehabilitate his personal honor, how to justify himself after the scandal, the eruption of which looms as a certainty. That nothing could convince him of the contrary is evidenced by the fact that he "sees" conspiracy in the servants' faces and a medieval grandeur in the face of Mathilde. He is imposing his own fears on reality.
Note how even this impending doom for himself that he sees on Mathilde's face is intimately related with his love for her: "He nearly fell in love with her." The Stendhalian hero permits himself to be afraid without shame because he has resolved to have the courage before the event itself. This attests to the self-imposed honesty and astringent morality by which Julien lives. He is presented truly as the military commander surveying the battlefield, anxiously awaiting the offensive.
Julien is capable of detachment and of a sort of ironic self-scrutiny. This is a kind of insurance against ridicule that Stendhal permits Julien to create. After all, Julien does not take himself too seriously, just as Stendhal has not been his own dupe.
Julien repents for having sent the letters to Fouqué. He sees the possible circulation of the documents as a base action on his own part since posterity would see in him an ingrate who would resort to attacking a woman's honor. He is now at the point of preferring to be a dupe, his personal honor requiring self-immolation in silence. Note the rapidity of Stendhal's pace in narration, imitating, thereby, the mental processes of Julien.
Chapter 16 begins without a break from the end of the preceding by the running interior monologue of the hero. Although Julien has never been so afraid in his life, waiting at any moment for the conspirators to strike, he assures himself that he has left no eventuality without consideration, so that he will not be able to reproach himself in the event of a blunder. Arriving at Mathilde's window with his pistol in hand, Julien goes to battle.
The rendezvous scene is rightly reputed as one of Stendhal's masterpieces in psychological analysis. The scene is very dramatic and fast moving. These effects are achieved by the use of short, terse sentences, both by Stendhal in commenting and by the characters in dialogue. A second contributing factor is the structure: Stendhal alternates consistently in his presentation, first of Julien's, then of Mathilde's view of the situation, adding commentaries and making analysis after the remarks of each character.
Alternation is necessitated by the nature of the characters and of their love. Both have conceived a role that they are playing, and the roles prove inadequate to the occasion. Such a rendezvous demands passion, spontaneity, forgetfulness of self. Both are self-conscious, scheming, suspicious, acting out a preconceived conduct. It is the bifurcation of two characters into an identical role and their own individual "doubling" in the presence of the other that make the scene basically comic-heroic.
A rapid sketch of their respective states — internal and the manner in which they find external expression-follows: Mathilde has been observing Julien for an hour and is now very emotional. Nonetheless, she addresses him as "Monsieur." Julien has thought only of the ambush he expects and therefore is ill-prepared. He remembers, in his embarrassment, that his role requires that he be romantic; therefore, he attempts to embrace Mathilde. Her refusal, stemming, no doubt, from timidity and from her preference of the ideal to the real, puts Julien back on the defensive. This explains his reaction: ". . . overjoyed at being repulsed, he hastened to look around."
Mathilde is delighted to find a topic of conversation, she is so unprepared for this "real" situation. She asks what Julien has in his pockets. Julien, likewise embarrassed, is pleased to have conversational subject matter and explains that he is carrying an "arsenal." Then it is a question of how to dispose of the ladder. Mathilde adopts a tone of normal conversation, admonishing Julien not to break the windows, lamenting over the flowers crushed as the ladder falls.
Julien, seemingly dedicated to the idea of self-defeat, sees Mathilde's supply of rope as proof that Croisenois has triumphed over him after all since he, Julien, must not be the first to have visited her room. Julien becomes suspicious again, but he has enough resourcefulness and presence of mind to playfully adopt a Creole accent. This effort does not escape Mathilde's attention, and she joins in the game, seeing this as a manifestation of Julien's superiority, thus justifying, in her own eyes, her love for him.
When she takes his arm, his violent reaction is one of suspicion again, and he draws his dagger. There reigns a complicity of silence as they are listening for a menacing noise. Then returns the embarrassing silence. Julien busies himself with measures of security; Mathilde has just awakened to the compromising situation her daring has put her into. This leads her to ask what has happened to her letters.
Julien, still distrustful, explains the measures he has taken to safeguard himself, believing that his hidden enemies will hear his words. Mathilde's amazement calls forth a sincere avowal on Julien's part of his suspicions. Mathilde has now switched to "tu," but her tone belies this familiarity. This encourages Julien to embrace her, and she only half repulses the embrace.
Now Julien is more the master of himself and, relying on recollection of his past successes, begins reciting love passages from Rousseau. Mathilde, not even hearing them, but carrying on her own mental debate, announces that she finds his courage in coming proof that he merits her love.
Each is attempting to capture reflections of the "self," not to direct attention to the "other." Therefore, what is actually occurring are two separate monologues: Mathilde looking for evidence that Julien is worthy of the sacrifice she has made, Julien looking for encouragement, which in turn will bolster his self-esteem and courage. Stendhal is showing vanity, an early stage of love.
Sensing the emptiness of the familiar address, Julien falls back on his reason, and he is content, momentarily, to found his happiness simply on being preferred by this haughty aristocrat. Now he is searching for a plan of conduct, making conversation to fill the silence: Mathilde joins in this "substitute" action, covering her horror at her own indiscretion by prattle about when they can meet again.
In narrating their conversation, Stendhal has recourse to a method of narration called later "style indirect libre," the initiation of which is attributed to Flaubert. It consists of quoting the words of the characters out of quotes, of narrating as if the characters were speaking. Julien offers his plan, not directly quoted as dialogue, but as part of the narration: "What could be easier for them than to meet in the library and make arrangement for everything?" and again: "If Mathilde thought it better for him always to come by means of a ladder, he would expose himself to that slight danger with a heart overflowing with joy."
Instead of helping to create an air of complicity, thus furthering their rendezvous and speeding it on to its climax, Julien's brilliance and self-assurance awaken Mathilde's pride and make her ask herself again whether Julien is now her master. "If she had been able, she would have annihilated herself and Julien," says Stendhal in an abrupt manner, startling the reader. Stendhal prefers classical litotes to romantic hyperbole.
Mathilde had not predicted this attitude of hers; thus do Stendhal's characters watch themselves develop, surprised at what they become. Eventually, her will silences her remorse, timidity, shyness, and wounded modesty, and she notes that she is not fulfilling her role: One speaks to one's lover. She therefore speaks tender words in a cold tone. She forces herself to permit herself to be seduced. From this act, typically hardly alluded to because of Stendhal's great modesty, neither feels pleasure.
Their reactions are different, yet consistent with their character: Julien feels happiness only in retrospect as he rides in "high solitude"; Mathilde wonders why there has been such a distance between her ideal and the real, and she asks whether she really loves Julien. The reaction of both characters echoes Stendhal's own at his persistent disappointment with reality: N'est ce que ça? (Is that all it is?) Mathilde has emptied the act of pleasure for Julien because she has undertaken it as a duty to him and to herself. Julien had felt the same reaction after his first rendezvous with Mme. de Rênal. He notices again, however, how inferior is this happiness with Mathilde to that which he knew with Mme. de Rênal.